Panthers tackle Aaron Wheeler, back, center Terrance Smith and their fellow linemen have been lauded by their teammates for being a big reason why Albany is off to a 3-0 start and is the only unbeaten team in the PIFL. (email@example.com)
ALBANY — Fans flock to the Albany Civic Center field after Panthers games, migrating toward quarterback Cecil Lester for a handshake or an autograph.
Just a few feet away, receiver and former Westover star Antwone Savage is surrounded by people, posing for pictures with his biggest fans.
There aren’t big crowds, however, around starting offensive tackle Aaron Wheeler and his fellow linemen — but that’s just fine with Wheeler, who is used to not getting the same praise as the touchdown-makers.
“We just want to do our job playing in the trenches,” said Wheeler, a second-year player from Alabama State. “We have never gotten the attention we are supposed to get. We just play hard and do whatever it takes to win.”
This year, however, the linemen deserve just as much credit as anybody for the Panthers’ undefeated start. Albany coach Lucious Davis said the play in the trenches on both sides of the ball has propelled his team to its 3-0 record, and it will be key when the Panthers step on the field Saturday against winless Knoxville.
“We win all of our games in the trenches,” Davis said. “We do a good job of putting pressure on the quarterback, and we do a pretty good job of protecting ours. As long as we keep that up, I think our chances of winning are very high.”
Lester has been sacked just two times this season while being protected by his offensive line, while the Panthers’ defensive front has kept running backs in check and have combined for four sacks.
“Ever since I have been coaching this team, I have said that if we win up front on both sides of the ball, we have a good chance of winning the game,” Lester said.
Terrance Smith is the starting center and is anchored by tackles Wheeler and Demetrice Jackson, while fullback Derrick Wimbush is a key part of the pass protection. Defensive end Anton Ceaser leads the team with two sacks, and fellow defensive linemen Tito Hannah and Chauncy Debois have 1 1/2 sacks and a half sack, respectively.
The big men up front may be winning games and opening up opportunities for their teammates to succeed, but they don’t always get the credit — at least not publicly.
“We talk to them and give them encouragement, and we give them credit,” Davis said. “We point out little things, and we know that media-wise they don’t get the credit. But internally, if we score points, our quarterback isn’t getting hit, our running back is getting holes and good yards, then we know we are able to do that because of the offensive line.”
NOT YOUR ORDINARY PIGSKIN: Savage casually flipped a football back and forth between his hands before Thursday’s practice, and he didn’t waste any time expressing his displeasure with the pigskin.
“I don’t like it,” he said, referring to the football he held in his right hand.
He likes footballs just fine — he’s caught several of them for touchdowns during his playing days at Westover, Oklahoma and an assortment of arena league leagues.
It’s just the color of the new PIFL balls that he doesn’t like.
Instead of a typical brown football, the PIFL uses beige balls with tiny white triangles encircling each end, and receivers have had trouble this season following the ball because it gets lost in the lights.
“I don’t like that it’s beige, and then you throw a white stripe on it. They should have put a blue or black stripe on there, something that you can see,” said Savage, who has a team-high five touchdown catches and 152 yards. “Receivers don’t catch the ball, they catch the spiral. And you can’t see the white spiral on a beige ball. I haven’t dropped any, but it’s harder to find.”
The ball may be harder to catch, but they are easier to throw, said Lester, who has 12 touchdowns and just three interceptions this season.
“They’ve got a lot of grip,” Lester said. “They are a lot better than the balls we used last year.”
KNOXVILLE, HERE WE COME: The Panthers love playing in the Albany Civic Center, where they boast the league’s top attendance by more than 1,000 fans per game.
But they don’t mind going on the road either.
The team will leave for Knoxville today and will be on the bus for six hours, but Lester said he and his teammates use the long trips to bond.
The Panthers will be taking a regular charter bus to Knoxville, but for longer trips — like the 10-hour drive to Louisiana three weeks ago — the team uses a sleeper bus, which has a bed for every player.
The sleeper bus also has two TVs, a satellite and hookups for video game systems.
“You got a bed if you want to lie down,” Savage said. “You got a TV if you want to sit up and watch TV. It’s kind of like you are at the house just relaxing. And I love sleeping in those beds. That’s the best thing you can do on the road.”